I'm just back from visiting the Getty Villa and I don't know what to make of it.
On the one hand, this is a model of what can be achieved through private philanthropy. J. Paul Getty built the villa to house his collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The building, grounds, and setting are gorgeous, the antiquities truly impressive, the staff friendly and helpful and - best of all - due to Getty's generosity, admission is free.
But there's an irony here. Although Getty is known for making his private art collection public, many of the treasures were gathered through the privatization of public resources.
Ancient treasures are sometimes passed down, generation to generation, for thousands of years. But many of the artifacts we have today survived because they were buried - often in graves or tombs. One particularly beautiful statue in Getty's collection- ancient, but with a modernist simplicity - had been buried with its owner millennia ago, and then dug up and sold about 150 years ago.
Micro-economists tend to imagine a world where property rights are clearly defined and exchanges occur through voluntary transactions. But who has the property rights to what is buried in an ancient tomb? I would say that, in the absence of identifiable descendants, the tomb is collective, public property. In the 19th century, however, the view was that treasures belonged to whoever could dig them up. The result - short-term gains for traders in antiquities, long-term loss of cultural heritage. Archeological information was lost in careless digging, and countries saw their past heritage shipped to distant museums.
And Getty himself made his money from digging up buried treasure. It came from oil - notably concessions negotiated at very favourable terms with ibn Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia. One could argue that the oil in Saudi Arabia belongs to the people of Saudi Arabia. But that doesn't prevent rulers from selling the mineral rights, and using the proceeds as they see fit. That's what governments do.
I think there is a profound point here. But somehow when I get within a mile of the Pacific Ocean my brain goes to mush. I'll leave you with Getty's formula for getting rich:
1.- Rise early 2.- Work hard 3.- Strike oil
And a picture of the Getty Villa which, unfortunately, completely fails to capture the feel of the place: